It turns out Mitt Romney actually does want to preserve Pell grants.

Previously the Republican candidate indicated that he planned to save the federal government money by reducing the number of people on Pell grants. His plan was to raising the eligibility requirements for the program, which provides need-based grants to students from low and moderate-income families.

Well apparently he’s changed his mind. In the debate last night he said:

When I was governor of Massachusetts, to get a high school degree, you had to pass an exam. If you graduated in the top quarter of your class, we gave you a John and Abigail Adams Scholarship, four years tuition-free to the college of your choice in Massachusetts. It’s a public institution. I want to make sure we keep our Pell — Pell Grant program growing. We’re also going to have our loan program so that people are able to afford school.

There will, of course, be no program (say, the George and Martha Washington Scholarship) to allow all Americans in the top quarter of their high school class to attend tuition-free college, but his statement about Pell is interesting.

He has previously called for a five percent cut to the Department of Education, and indicated that he would have signed Paul Ryan’s budget, which would cut Pell Grants by 42 percent next year.

It’s unclear what he means by “grow,” however. Since Pell is an income-based program it would, technically, be possible to increase the number of people qualifying for the program by merely making a lot more people poor but that is, one hopes, not what he meant.

Incidentally a report by researchers from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government earlier this year indicated that the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship didn’t really work so well. Students who qualified for the program tended to go to lower quality public colleges, often with funding problems. As a result, scholarship students were less likely to graduate on time, if they graduated at all. “The low completion rates of scholarship users imply the program had little impact on the in-state production of college degrees,” the report concludes.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer